“Beggars can’t be choosers” Does the DTES want modular shelters?

“Beggars can’t be choosers.” That’s the line that kept running through my head as I listened to Michael Geller do a presentation on what he calls modular housing, but CCAP calls modular shelters. I kept thinking of that because that’s the silent premise for his proposal to build these shelters for homeless people. Geller has received $25,000 from the province to make a recommendation to them about putting modular shelters on the parking lots on either side of the Drake Hotel on Powell St. He spoke at a DERA meeting on March 23 at the Carnegie Theatre, and then people in the audience had their say.

What is a modular shelter? Geller had a slick power point presentation to answer this question. Geller’s version is not mobile homes or shipping containers, simply prefab units built in BC. They could be as small as 77 square feet with no bathroom (imagine the audacity of even proposing this as an option!) or 121 square feet with bathroom. Residents would eat in the bottom floor of the Drake, said Geller. His recommendation is for the units with a bathroom but no kitchen. There would be 64 of them in 1 and 2 stories and would cost about $45,000 each without a bathroom. Geller compared this price to $300,000 per unit for a recently approved unspecified social housing unit while the commonly accepted price for a singles unit is $200,000.

Things started to get more interesting when Geller said that these (inadequate) units could actually be turned into permanent housing with a little “refurbishing.” In addition to the Drake, they could also go on lots owned by developers who would get a tax break for allowing their land to be used for these temporary shelters. I wonder if the cost of the tax break or eating facilities is factored into his $45,000 per unit cost. They could be set up as “permanent” housing and last for 10 years, he said.

Kim Kerr of DERA opened up the discussion asking: “Is this the best we can get right now or not?” He said DERA hadn’t put its support behind this kind of housing because it isn’t adequate. He said DERA doesn’t consider hotel rooms to be social housing because they are inadequate too.

Clyde Wright of VANDU and CCAP said he was against it because it could turn into a permanent thing when it’s really just a bandaid.
Joan Morelli said she was not in favour either. “It’s another cop out for not building real housing.”

Patty said we need baby steps to get into permanent housing rather than sleep in the pouring rain. Nikki of DERA suggested that the scheme was coming forward because of the Olympics.

One woman said that modular shelters would be better than roach-ridden hotel rooms in the beginning but might deteriorate later.

At the end of the meeting Lily Loncar of DERA said that the rationale of the modular shelters was based on 2 false premises: we don’t have enough money to build good housing and we don’t have enough time. “Governments always say there’s not enough money for things poor people need,” she said. “But if we have $1 billion to spend on Olympic security, we have money for housing. The only issue is what governments chose to spend it on.” Then she added, “Any community can chose to fast track a project if they want to.” Loncar added: “We’re always told to accept crap cause there’s not enough money.”
Geller responded that he “didn’t disagree.” And said we “need to get the federal government back in” to building housing. So, why, I ask, isn’t he going around to all the media and bureaucrats and politicians arguing for that, instead of modular shelters?

CCAP volunteers and Power to Women members have also discussed the modular shelters and come out strongly opposed to them. People are afraid that they will become permanent, movable, inadequate housing instead of adequate, self contained units that help people feel respected and put down roots in the community.